PERSUASIONS ON-LINE V.23, NO.1 (Winter 2002)

Moral Neutrality in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park

Diane Capitani


Diane Capitani (email:, an Assistant Professor Languages and Literature at Kendall College, received an M.A. in French and an M.A. in English from Northwestern University, and an M.A. in Comparative Literature from the University of Chicago.  She also holds an M.A. and Ph.D. in Theological and Historical Studies.


in a family record entitled Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters by William Austen-Leigh and Richard Austen-Leigh, published in London in 1913, the authors, quoting from Austen’s nephew, tell us that Jane Austen “lived in entire seclusion from the literary world” and “probably never was in company with any person whose talents or whose celebrity equaled her own” (239).  This may have been true as far as the literary world was concerned; however, references in Austen’s letters, as well as references to certain political issues like the slave trade in Mansfield Park, or to Sir Thomas’s difficulties in Antigua in the same novel, would certainly indicate to modern readers that Jane Austen was more of a political animal than her contemporaries might have believed.  Recent articles and publications indicate inquiry into “Sir Thomas Bertram’s business in Antigua” and into Austen’s view of Empire.  Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, for example, explores the paradox at the heart of Mansfield Park: that “everything we know about Austen and her values is at odds with the cruelty of slavery” (107).  Is Austen, as Ruth Perry has suggested, taking a position of moral neutrality?  Is it possible that she does not care about the situation on those far-flung slave plantations?  Does she ignore the fact that the comfortable, orderly lifestyle the Bertrams enjoy and Fanny Price misses so desperately when she visits her family in Portsmouth, is maintained by the work of slaves, often under desperate conditions?  Does she feel about the slave population of the Indies as she seemed to feel about casualties in the battle of Albuera, an extremely bloody incident in one of Britain’s ongoing wars?  In a letter written to Cassandra on 31 May 1811, Austen exclaims, “How horrible it is to have so many people killed!—And what a blessing that one cares for none of them!” (Letters).  The careful reader asks what Austen knew about the economic and political situation of her day and how her strong moral sense could appear to accept a way of life owing so much to the abuse of other human beings.


Certainly Austen had to be aware of the source of all the comfort those county families enjoyed.  However, Claudia Johnson notes that “until very recently, the subject of slavery as it bears upon Austen’s novels, has received little critical attention, probably due to the ‘time-honored premise’ that Austen would have been unconcerned about such subjects” (107).  I would agree that for years the question was virtually ignored, but it has reared its head in recent scholarship, and many Austen readers scramble to explain away Austen’s ambivalence on the subject or—dare we say—her silence.  As a clergyman’s daughter, Austen certainly would have been aware of the activities of anti-slavery advocates like William Wilberforce.  Historically, she sits at a point in time when slave uprisings had been and were numerous, and when activists spoke long and loudly in Parliament and elsewhere against the abuse of enslaved peoples.  Any intelligent English person of Austen’s social class knew exactly from whence came the butter for their bread.  Austen’s own father was trustee of a plantation in Antigua, shown on a map of 1739 along with other estates with names like “Wickham” and “Lucas” (Terry 104).  It is absurd to think that she would not have known that the property in the West Indies worked by slaves made possible the very comfortable, peaceful, idyllic (save for the nagging voice of the dreadful Aunt Norris) life of the Bertrams and their peers.


Austen was far too well read not to have perused newspapers and journals as well as the books that were given, sent, and lent to her.  Her letters refer to titles she read again and again or struggled through: “I am reading a Society-Octavo, An Essay on the Military Police & Institutions of the British Empire, by Capt. Pasley of the Engineers . . .” (24 January 1813).  This was no light reading, it would seem, but she told Cassandra from Chawton that the book was “delightfully written & highly entertaining.”  Other references to military battles crop up here and there throughout her letters.  Austen may have lived a simple life, but she was not simple-minded.  History she would have been aware of, and Sir Thomas’s interests and the few references to them in Mansfield Park show us that Austen at the least felt the need to bring up the subject of slavery.


Early in the novel, we learn that Sir Thomas’s financial losses on his West Indian estate have thrown him into difficulties.  It is for the reader to conjecture what these reverses might be and to ferret out their causes.  Research reveals that a series of slave uprisings occurred around the time the novel was probably set.  Could one of these have taken place on the Bertram plantation in Antigua?  The West India interest was the manifestation in England of plantation power from 1660 to 1833.  White minority power controlled the political system in the Indies, its laws, procedures, and its institutions.  In West Indian Nations: A New History, Philip Sherlock, a West Indian native, discusses the very important fact that “race became a determinant of the standing and merit of individuals and groups within the society; that slavery as an institution was protected and preserved in the interests of a minority.  White power rested primarily on control of the political system and the maintenance of plantation slavery and was protected by a special body of legislation and an impassable white barrier around all key points of power” (173). One can argue that for Austen, who believed that power and influence in society ought to be given to individuals by merit, regardless of gender or birth order, the same should hold true for those of another race, who were submerged in order to create kingdoms of sorts for the English gentry, most often absentee proprietors.  Arguably, she could have made a stronger statement in Mansfield Park.


The industry, upon which absentee proprietors like Sir Thomas depended, and which flourished in Austen’s time as well as before and after, was the sugar trade.  France and England fought each other for control of the West Indian islands for much of the eighteenth century because the plantation islands of this area created wealth for large numbers of absentee planters.  Barbados and Jamaica headed the list of British colonies as the most valuable of the revenue-producing possessions, while St. Dominigue gave the French another share of the money.  Sir Thomas’s interests centered in Antigua, an island more thinly settled and heavily raided throughout its history by the French, important in view of the Napoleonic wars at home.  The French Revolution actually gave a reprieve to the colonies, by focusing attention close to home.  After Utrecht, the planters could concentrate their interests on raising sugar cane.  Antigua was the most secluded island in the group; although home to a serious slave uprising in the seventeenth century, in general its slaves were not as rebellious as those on a large island like Jamaica, where the slaves rebelled more energetically and more frequently (Dunn 259).  The damages and losses to the planters on Antigua came less from slave uprising than from the endless French wars and raids, when the plantation owners suffered incredible financial reverses.  Islands like Antigua were poorly protected militarily and grew less rapidly in sugar cane production in their early days and throughout much of the eighteenth century, as well. (Note that there are four references to Sir Thomas’s “rather straitened” means in Chapter 3.<  Even Mrs. Norris is aware that the Antigua estates are making poor returns [MP 64].)  But in Antigua, like the other islands in the area, slavery grew eventually in response to continual demand for slave labor, even with agricultural production down.


Next to slavery itself, the most striking characteristic of West Indian society was absentee ownership of property and estates.  This was true wherever sugar was grown in the Islands.  There were large numbers of powerful, wealthy absentee owners in Britain during Austen’s time and before.  A large pressure group held seats in the house giving strong representation to these interests (Parry 153).  Phillip Sherlock finds that “absenteeism led to the inefficient management of estates, hindered the growth of a West Indian-based white society, encouraged the schooling of children in Britain and lessened pressure for the growth of educational institutions in the West Indies” (184).  On the other hand, through the seats that a number of absentees held in Parliament, the West Indies gained direct representation in government and slaveholders kept their economic base secure.


Obviously, there were many reasons for absentee ownership, many probably not relative to someone in Sir Thomas’s position.  The climate was unhealthy to most British, and there was a lack of educational facilities as well as cultural and intellectual opportunities, although this may have been caused by absenteeism.  It was insecure and unpleasant living in close quarters with a potentially dangerous slave population, as well.  Someone in Sir Thomas’s place in society, who, one might assume, inherited his title, could have acquired his Antiguan properties through foreclosure of mortgages, a common way to become a successful planter (186).


While absentee ownership was inefficient economically, it did give the West Indies powerful political advocates at “home” in Britain, a major plus.  An owner like Sir Thomas, appearing on the Antiguan scene for a year or two, was an important link with European culture for the people of the islands.  Sir Thomas visits his estate because it is in trouble, a not-uncommon occurrence.  These estates did not run themselves.  The absentee proprietors checked their properties to see conditions for themselves, to check the dishonesty or incompetence of their managers, to take their place in local society, and to be entertained lavishly (Parry and Sherlock 154).  Sir Thomas never gives long descriptions of the balls of Antigua after his return, at least not to the reader, but certainly he was entertained by local Antiguan society when he was there, with the deference due him.  Austen does not tell us about Sir Thomas’s treatment of his slaves in the West Indies, but many of the absentee owners of the day were more sensitive than the resident planters, and they tried to use their visits to effect improvements in the lives of the slaves.


The landlords’ visits to the plantations were usually festive occasions and almost always improved economic conditions for the owners.  A year or two was a typical length of time for such a visit—the amount of time that Sir Thomas spends in Antigua—and then, having settled all problems, the owners returned to Europe, and plantation life gradually slipped back into its old routine.  There is no mention of whether Sir Thomas’s property contained a plantation house, as many of these holdings did, but if such were the case, the house would stand empty most of the time.  If the overseer employed by Sir Thomas was inefficient or dishonest, it is possible that the estate was having difficulty supporting the draw upon it (155).  Judith Terry has argued that “Jane Austen envisioned him as an abolitionist . . .” (99), but there is no proof for this in the text and there is no question that Sir Thomas is quite pleased with the successful conclusion of his “business” in Antigua.


Like Jane Austen, Fanny Price sees more than she reveals.  After Sir Thomas’s return, Fanny reveals to Edmund that “‘the evenings do not appear long to me.  I love to hear my uncle talk of the West Indies.  I could listen to him for an hour together’” (197).  Accused by Edmund of being too silent, Fanny is stung into asking him: “‘Did not you hear me ask him about the slave trade last night?’”  She has longed to ask more, “‘but there was such a dead silence!’” (198).  One conjectures that it is not just the cousins who are silent, but Sir Thomas as well—is he possibly uncomfortably squirming?  After this direct reference to slavery, from Fanny and Austen herself, both fall silent on the subject for the remainder of the novel.  Fanny does not seem to criticize the institution of slavery, nor does she condemn Sir Thomas for his role in it.  Remember that this chapter begins with very political language concerning the reinstatement of the old order: “Sir Thomas’s return made a striking change in the ways of the family. . . . Under his government, Mansfield Park was an altered place” (196).  Sir Thomas re-establishes himself as authoritarian head of Mansfield Park and conditions swiftly return to a peaceful norm, albeit with undercurrents of simmering rebellion at home and abroad.


Just as in the world of the Antiguan sugar planters and their dependence on the obedience of their slaves to keep affairs running smoothly, the family at Mansfield Park is dependent on an authoritarian father as its head, a father whose power and prestige are felt so strongly by his children that they are ostensibly obedient and secretly rebellious.  Even Mrs. Norris, who seems to fawn on Sir Thomas, takes out her resentment on Fanny (Lenta 174).  Lady Bertram is at the other end of the spectrum.  For her, authoritarian rule has led to passivity.  In essence, Austen presents us with a mini-view of life on a slave-run plantation, where humane and Christian values are compromised by worldliness.


With Sir Thomas’s return from Antigua, and his satisfaction with the successful completion of his business, the reader is aware of a number of crucial facts.  It is clear that Mansfield Park’s peace and order, which before Sir Thomas’s visit to the Indies depended on his dominating, although arguably benevolent, rule, are disintegrating.  During the period of his absence, this society has come close to collapse, for his children, who are adult in years, are still children because they have no experience in taking responsibility for themselves.  Sir Thomas attempts to re-establish the old ways when he returns, but Fanny has realized the limitations of authoritarian rule, that it depends too much on an individual presence and on that individual’s understanding of, and fidelity to, principle.  Peace, order, and mutual support will not continue at Mansfield Park unless each of its inhabitants agrees voluntarily that he or she is of value and worth the sacrifices of individual pleasures and choices required for preservation (176-77).  For the two years of Sir Thomas’s visit to Antigua, Fanny and the family at home are left with no authority figure, just as Sir Thomas’s plantation world in the West Indies is left to flounder when he leaves the islands.  One can argue that it is impossible for any real growth and change to take place in either world with no continuing solid support.  Authoritarianism and subjugation are, however, not the answer.


Scholars have compared Fanny’s situation in Sir Thomas’s household to that of the slaves on his plantation in the Indies.  Claudia Johnson has called him a “model paternalist, a man who believes that the emancipation of his slaves would not make them happy, who sees his guardianship as an act of kindness on behalf of dependents who cannot act for themselves” (107).  Like nineteenth-century American slaveholders, Sir Thomas expects gratitude for his kindness and his protection, from Fanny as well as from his West Indian slaves.


We must remember that justification for colonization took many forms.  For the British, one necessity for colonization had been the concept of “work”: in other words, colonizers took an underused area and efficiently managed it to produce needed materials; they focused on better use of the space.  “Better use of space” could, of course, be defined as lining the pockets of those back home in England.  We must always keep in mind that to these colonizers, and to the landowners, the imperial mission became one of domesticating those colonized, submerging and subjecting them to dominance, feminizing them along the way.  The ideological character that emerged from Austen’s time into the Victorian era was to “make them like us.”  However, another paradigm existing alongside this one insists “they could never be like us, so it becomes our duty to put them to serving a useful purpose, a job of work.”  Thus, the “Other” is tamed in the process of colonizing.  Colonizing “softens” and makes womanly.  If it does not, then brutality must be employed as well.  The “Other” simply cannot speak our languages, so the colonized always remains outside the system.  Consequently, when Sir Thomas returns to Mansfield Park, the very distance from Antigua allows him to forget what he has left behind, as long as the money keeps rolling in.  If today’s reader has a desire to give Sir Thomas the benefit of the doubt, one could postulate that he has attempted to improve the physical lot of his slaves and is comfortable with himself, just as he improves Fanny’s physical lot by causing a fire to be lighted in her room after many years of cheerless cold.  Fanny, of course, is overwhelmed that he would take even take the time to think of her comfort, and it causes her to contemplate Sir Thomas’s kindness.  The novel is full of references to gratitude and acceptance; Fanny, like many of Austen’s women, finds ingratitude a terrible crime, which might lead us to feel that she would not condemn her uncle’s slave interests since she might see him as the slave’s protector and savior as he is hers.  Later, Fanny does rebel against his rule, when she refuses to enter into a marriage she does not want, reinforcing the theme of rebellion that Austen introduced early in the novel when she mentions Sir Thomas’s difficulties with his holding in Antigua.


Finally, a humanist element that encouraged the abolition of slavery began to flourish throughout Austen’s lifetime and beyond.  The anti-slavery work of its leaders surely would have been known and would have affected a woman of Austen’s temperament.  I find it impossible to believe that Austen would not have known of the movement, but whether it caused her discomfort is difficult to discover.  She could have read of the attempts by planters in the West Indian colonies to muzzle organized religion and to ensure a lack of religious training among the slaves.  Quaker efforts to convert the blacks were resisted by the local powers since the planters associated the missionaries with the spread of anti-slavery ideas.  In the end, all the missions could teach was a way of life for the slaves that would turn them away from mutiny and murder.  Reformers and humanitarians in England were attacking West Indian slavery, to the anger of all those residents of Britain who saw a large part of the British economy dependent on its continued existence.  The ideas of liberty and equality, which may or may not have appealed to Austen, received religious sanction from the evangelical movement, led by men like George Whitfield.  The appeal was to conscience; slavery was wrong because all men were the sons of God.  Missionary societies came out of this movement, as well as humanitarian groups who campaigned against other issues like child labor (Parry 177).  The initiative for the abolition of the slave trade came from within England itself from men like William Wilberforce and others, but the landowners of the British Isles realized that many had come to depend almost entirely on the sugar trade for their livelihood.  However, by 1808, the Act for the Abolition of the Slave Trade came into force (Parry 180).  Half of the trade at that time was in British hands, and that control ceased.  As slavery became less profitable, the realization came that by abolishing the slave trade, Britain could trump the French.  The West Indian economy suffered because of Britain was pulling away, and because society there and in Britain could no longer claim that slavery was good because it civilized the savage.  At best, the slave trade was doing evil for cheap labor.  Ultimately, it was the rise of an industrial society that had no interest in slavery that hastened its demise.


Until relatively recently, critics have not examined, in any more depth than Austen wrote of, Sir Thomas’s Antiguan adventure.  When Fanny asks her question, it hangs in the air unanswered, and stays there.  History tells us that at the time of Sir Thomas’s removal to Antigua, the islands were suffering from a major slave rebellion.  Austen’s text early on notes that “Sir Thomas was still abroad, and without any near prospect of finishing his business.  Unfavourable circumstances had suddenly arisen at a moment when he was beginning to turn all his thoughts toward England, and the very great uncertainty in which every thing was then involved . . .” (37-38), so the author indicates that she was, indeed, familiar with the political situation in the Indies.  However, she does not acknowledge the evils of the slave system, or indicate that she is uncomfortable in any way with the British landowner living on the monies that come from such abuse of other human beings.  Edward Said has called her critics “negligent” (93), and, perhaps, they have been. Perhaps we have been.  Surface order counted, for Austen and for Fanny Price.  Sir Thomas sadly reflects in the novel’s final pages on his failure to raise his family properly, but he does not reflect, to our knowledge, on the situation of his workers in Antigua.  Religion struggled to make sense of this paradox, but it usually capitulated to the world of Mansfield Park, just as Fanny does when she goes to Portsmouth and sees the difference in comfort and sensibility that comes from money.  Those sincere religious groups like the Quakers, who first fought slavery in the islands of the West Indies, were forced to struggle for years to free religion from the obsession with economics (note the discussion between Edmund, Mary and Fanny concerning the financial expectations of the clergy) and then were not always successful.


An argument could be made that Austen was troubled by the slavery issue because she introduces it in Fanny’s conversation with Edmund.  A female author’s societal position in Austen’s day probably would not have allowed a sweeping condemnation of the institution of slavery from the pages of a novel, so perhaps this brief exchange is as far as Austen could go.  Interestingly, she chooses the quiet, mousy Fanny as the mouthpiece for the idea, rather than soon-to-be clergyman Edmund.  We could read that as another indictment of the clergy who turned their backs on the problems of the unprotected, perhaps Austen’s statement that religious institutions in England needed to do more, that the clergy needed to take a stronger position, but this may be taking Austen’s brief political exchange too far.  Austen does not, after all, condemn the lifestyle; rather, she faults the parenting of the Bertram children instead.


One must acknowledge that the wealth of the Bertrams is what allows propriety and good behavior to flourish.  Daily comfort is provided by servants who are almost always invisible in Austen’s novels.  They are there to provide leisure and services for their superiors and to disappear—like Thomas, the footman in Sense and Sensibility: “Thomas and the tablecloth, now alike needless, were soon afterwards dismissed” (355).  In the final chapter of Mansfield Park, Austen tells the reader that she wants “to restore everybody, not greatly in fault themselves, to tolerable comfort, and to have done with all the rest” (461).  This comment is ironic, certainly, reflecting “guilt and misery,” but it is unfortunate that “the rest” includes the very troubling world of slavery, a world that Austen is hesitant to visit.



Works Cited


Austen, Jane.  Jane Austen’s Letters.   Ed. Deirdre Le Faye.  London: Oxford UP, 1995.

_____.  Mansfield Park.  Ed. R.W. Chapman.  3rd ed.  Oxford: OUP, 1933.

Austen-Leigh, William and Richard Arthur Austen-Leigh.  Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters.  London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1913.

Dunn, Richard J.  Sugar and Slaves.  Chapel Hill: UNCP, 1972.

Johnson, Claudia L.  Jane Austen: Women, Politics and The Novel.  Chicago: UCP, 1988.

Lenta, Margaret.  “Androgyny and Authority in Mansfield Park.”  Studies in the Novel 15 (Fall, 1983): 169-83.

Parry, J.H., and Phillip Sherlock.  A Short History of the West Indies.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1971.

Said, Edward.  Culture and Imperialism.  New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

Sherlock, Philip.  West Indian Nations.  New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1973.

Terry, Judith.  “Sir Thomas Bertram’s ‘Business in Antigua.’”  Persuasions 17 (Dec. 16, 1995): 97-105.


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